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Two for the Ages 

Mac Rebennack's musical wanderlust has taken him all over a musical map that includes psychedelia, big band, standards, and the jazzy realm of his most recent CD, a tribute to Duke Ellington. But those roads inevitably lead back home. Few musicians embody New Orleans music like Dr. John, and the Night Tripper's extensive album catalogue contains a pair of the all-time greatest New Orleans albums, 1972's Gumbo and 1992's Goin' Back to New Orleans. Gumbo paid homage to classic New Orleans R&B, and Goin' Back to New Orleans expanded that vision with nods to Mardi Gras Indians and early composers like Louis Moreau Gottschalk. It's hard to imagine adding to the brilliance of those two timeless New Orleans song cycles, but Dr. John's done just that with his new CD Creole Moon (Blue Note), another fonky love letter to his hometown.

Creole Moon was recorded in Maurice at Dockside Studios, with his longtime band the Lower 9-11, featuring the ever-funky rhythm section of drummer Herman Ernest III and bassist David Barard, with guitar gris-gris from Renard Poche. Local brass Charlie Miller (trumpet), Eric Traub (saxophone) are prominent in the mix, and the skinwork of New Orleans percussionists Michael Skinkus and Curtis Pierre makes a bed of Afro-Caribbean grooves. Also on board are legendary hornmen David "Fathead" Newman and James Brown alumni Fred Wesley, and south Louisiana stalwarts Michael Doucet and Sonny Landreth make guest appearances on selected tracks.

"I'd been thinking about this record for a long time," says Rebennack in his liner notes. "It's a collection of tunes so close to my heart ... ." That's not hyperbole; four of the songs are co-writes with his late friend and songwriting legend Doc Pomus, while "Monkey and Baboon" is based on a song he learned from the Wild Tchoupitoulas' Big Chief Jolly. Musical references to a long line of local luminaries appear around every corner: Dr. John tips his hat to Jessie Hill on the urban New Orleans groove of "You Swore," drawls some phrases reminiscent of Cousin Joe in "Food for Thot," and the lead of "Now That You Got Me" echoes Smokey Johnson's "It Ain't My Fault" -- updated with squawking talk-box guitar.

Creole Moon also boasts as many shades and colors as its namesake. It's a testament to Rebennack's music scholarship and appreciation for New Orleans' multiculturalism that elements of Latin bolero, calypso, Japanese folk, Senegalese rhythms and flamenco snake through the changes, in rich arrangements that are never gratuitous. And the uptempo numbers aim the beat right at the feet -- Rebennack calls "Litenin'" a song that's "dance music, no more, no less, a real party song."

The piece de resistance is Rebennack's brief list of "gumbo-izms" in the liner notes, explaining a few terms of his priceless Night Tripper dialect. Using that lexicon, rest assured that the manouevres of Croaker John and the Lower 9-11 on Creole Moon are cause for great aggravation, so skank they're sweet as zoo-zoos, fit for dittyboppers, chiles and skins, well worth your cake -- and that's no honkified jaw-jerkin'. On its own, Creole Moon shines. Placed alongside Gumbo and Goin' Back to New Orleans, it completes a Dr. John trilogy that's nothing less than a vital history lesson of Crescent City music.

One of Dr. John's regular inspirations is legendary Louisiana troubadour Lead Belly, and Lead Belly's influence remains strong in one of Dr. John's contemporaries, 70-year-old vocalist Odetta. The regal vocalist, an early catalyst of the folk movement who counts Pete Seeger as one of her oldest friends, pays tribute to Lead Belly on her new CD, Lookin' for a Home (MC Records), with readings of 14 Lead Belly songs.

The CD is a reminder that most blues is folk music, as Odetta mines Lead Belly's songbook for universal truths. A spare, haunting version of "New Orleans" (best known through the Animals' cover version, rechristened "House of the Rising Sun") is turned into a meditation on mortality, and Odetta's resolute delivery on "Rock Island Line" captures the bitterness of the chain gang. Odetta's vocals are measured and heartfelt throughout, sometimes reminiscent of Blu Lu Barker's later recordings. Lead Belly's Louisiana roots are well-represented by pianist Henry Butler, who provides rolling, melancholy accompaniment on "In the Pines," and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's stuttering, bluesy fiddle work on a syncopated version of "Easy Rider."

Lookin' for a Home boasts sparse and thoughtful instrumentation, and though it doesn't have the sweeping orchestral feel of Dr. John's Creole Moon, it's a similarly satisfying embrace of a timeless chapter in Louisiana's musical heritage. Ultimately, both albums are a reminder that veteran performers can still -- as Dr. John might say -- teach the sprouts a thing or two.

click to enlarge Dr. John's new CD, Creole Moon, completes a stunning trilogy of New Orleans music.
  • Dr. John's new CD, Creole Moon, completes a stunning trilogy of New Orleans music.
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